Sunday, September 06, 2015

With Bold Words And Baby Steps, Pope Finds Fans Beyond His Flock

SEPTEMBER 06, 2015 6:29 PM ET

Among bishops and priests, Pope Francis is in familiar — and lighthearted — territory. But among non-Catholics in the U.S., the Pope's comments have also generated significant enthusiasm.Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

The phrase "papal encyclical" isn't one you'll commonly find in headlines in the secular world. But that's exactly where news of Pope Francis' 192-page letter on climate change landed in June.

The Pope wrote that humans are responsible for climate change, urging all people to do a better job of caring for the environment — and his words resonated far beyond the church.

The splash he made was nothing new, though. Before that letter, and since its publication, the Pope — who will be visiting the U.S. later this month — has made other bold pronouncements. His statements on gays and lesbians, income inequalityand abortion have earned Francis many fans outside the Roman Catholic Church.

Take Sami Hussain, for instance. A biologist in San Francisco, Hussain says he read the Pope's encyclical — the whole thing — and he came away impressed.

Hussain, who was raised Muslim, had already been paying close attention to Francis because of something the Pope said to reporters in 2013.

"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" Francis said then.

It was a major shift in tone from past Popes. Gay and transgender Catholics still can't take communion, but for Hussain, who is gay, the Pope's words represent a welcome change.

"Obviously he's not going to march in the Pride parade in San Francisco," Hussain says. "But I think taking baby steps towards acknowledging gay people, I think that's pretty bold coming from that sort of conservative background."
Obviously he's not going to march in the Pride parade in San Francisco. But I think taking baby steps towards acknowledging gay people, I think that's pretty bold coming from that sort of conservative background.

Sami Hussain

Hussain is not alone in his feelings toward the Pope.

NPR conducted an informal, nonscientific poll about the Pope on Facebook — and got thousands of replies from mainline Protestants, Jews, atheists and agnostics. They praised the pope for talking about the problems of the world's poor, and for living in a modest apartment as opposed to the usual Vatican splendor.

"For the first time, I care about the Pope," says John Williamson, a Protestant from Grand Rapids, Mich., whose enthusiasm echoed many of the responses on Facebook.

In some cases, the affection non-Catholics have for Pope Francis can almost sound like a crush. Elise Overcash, a self-described Evangelical Christian in Seattle, was so moved by His Holiness that she decided to name her car after him.

"It's a 2014 Subaru Outback. Green. Its name is Pope Francis. We like to take it up to the mountains and drive it in around in the environment," Overcash says. "Who better to name it after than the Pope?"

It's not just NPR's survey that shows Francis is popular with non-Catholics. In February, a proper poll by the Pew Research Center put his approval rating at 74 percent among White mainline protestants, and 68 percent among people with no religious affiliation at all.

Pope Francis, at a prayer in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Sept. 1. During the prayer, the Pope announced he's allowing all priests in the church's upcoming Year of Mercy to absolve women of the "sin of abortion" if they repent with a "contrite heart."Riccardo De Luca/AP

Even people who have distrusted the papacy before are changing their minds.

"Past popes have been actually really scary to me," says Melanie Winkler, who was raised Jewish. Winkler says she and her friends near Hartford, Conn., have found a lot to like in Pope Francis.

"This is a new, very new generation of pope. Hopefully there will be a lot more interfaith cooperation, and just a more welcoming vibe overall."

But not everyone is feeling the vibe. According to Gallup, Francis's overall approval ratings dropped after his letter on climate change — led by a 27 percent decline among people who describe themselves as "conservative."

"Among Evangelicals, I think this pope is probably less popular than John Paul II," says Richard Land, the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina. And it's not just climate change rhetoric at issue, he says: "When he talks about capitalism as an evil, I think most evangelicals don't believe that."

Another criticism of Francis turned up in NPR's informal survey of non-Catholics. Some skeptics say the Pope's positions are only a shift in tone, rather than a fundamental change in the doctrine of the church.

"When Francis first appeared on the horizon, I think it looked kind of hopeful," says Lisa Colletti, a former Catholic who now attends Quaker services. "But it's looking like now, it's more talk than action."

She likes what Francis has said about gays and lesbians, but she'd like to see him back it up.

"Well, he says, 'Who am I to judge?' But he's the one who can do something to change doctrine, and to change that the church carries out the things that it does," she says. "So he kind of is the one to judge, and to change the way that things are done."

Collettti also hopes Francis will do more to reform the way women are treated in the Catholic church. She's encouraged by Pope's announcement giving priests the discretion to forgive women who've had abortions, though only during the upcoming Holy Year.
But like so much of what Francis does, Colletti says, this is just a small step toward fixing a bigger problem.

Correction Sept. 6, 2015

In an early audio version of this story, we described Pope Francis as the first non-European pope. He is the first non-European pope in the modern era, but not the first ever.


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